Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Music DVD Review: Heaven And Hell - Neon Nights: Live In Europe

In the months preceding the arrival of Ronnie James Dio, it looked as if Black Sabbath were over. They had spent the past decade as the world’s most infamous band, and their notoriety was taking its toll. Ozzy Osbourne had been kicked out because of his drug problems, and the remaining members were not doing much better. The addition of Dio to the core of Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward (drums) produced one of the most incredible second acts in rock history.

Their first album together, Heaven And Hell (1980) was immediately recognized as a classic by fans and critics alike. The Mob Rules (1982) was a worthy follow-up, and saw Vinnie Appice replace Bill Ward on the drums. Unfortunately, it was the last studio album this line-up would record for ten years.

Due to typical rock star ego clashes, they did not go into the studio together again until 1992, for Dehumanizer. It was a great album, but remains overlooked, and the four parted ways again. In 2007, Warner Bros. were putting together The Dio Years compilation, featuring tracks from all three records, plus three new ones. Things went so well that the guys decided to record a full disc, under the name Heaven And Hell. It was as if they had never left, their trademark sound intact after nearly 30 years. Sadly, The Devil You Know (2009) turned out to be Dio’s last album.

The concert recorded for the new Neon Nights DVD was recorded during the subsequent tour, at the massive Wacken Festival in Germany. The night was July 30, 2009. At the time, nobody knew it would be Dio’s final filmed live appearance.

He is certainly in top form throughout the ninety-minute set.After the introductory “E5150,” the band tear into “The Mob Rules.” Dio’s voice is as strong as ever while he prowls the huge stage and flashes the devil-horn hand signal he was so well known for.

From there, the band reach back to Heaven And Hell, and the first song they as a band wrote together, “Children Of The Sea.” Making sure to highlight all four of their albums, next comes “I” from Dehumanizer, then “Bible Black” from The Devil You Know.

Vinnie Appice gives the guys a smoke break during “Time Machine,” with a powerful four-minute solo. The guy must be surrounded by a hundred drums in his kit, and he manages to hit just about every one of them. Next up in the solo spotlight is Tony Iommi during the opening of “Die Young.” His two-minute introduction covers a lot of ground in such a short time, and shows what a vastly underrated guitar player he has always been.

The last song of the show proper is “Heaven And Hell.” At 17 minutes in length, their anthem is given the deluxe treatment it deserves. Iommi’s guitar playing really shines during his solos, and includes an extended blues workout. I found myself paying a lot of attention to Geezer Butler’s bass work during this one. He reminds me of John Entwistle in some ways. While he is never showy on-stage, he comes up with some of the most amazing bass runs, yet never wavers in holding down the bottom end.

“Heaven And Hell” predictably brings the 150,000 fans to their feet, singing along with the always engaging Ronnie James Dio. They encore with a snippet from “Country Girl,” then wind up with a searing version of “Neon Knights.” The crowd loves it, and Dio’s last words as the group head off-stage are, “We love you guys, you bloody rock!”

The DVD bonus features are two interview segments. In the first, the four members discuss the 30 year history of the Dio - Sabbath group. That Metal Show host Eddie Trunk interviews Dio, Appice, and Butler for this segment. British journalist Malcolm Dome wrote the DVD liner notes, and he interviews Iommi for his contribution. It seems that Dio’s health was not yet an issue when these interviews were done, because he looks fine, and nobody brings anything up about it.

Finally there are personal tributes from Iommi, Butler, and Appice to their friend. He was an incredible talent, and the impression I get is that he was a great guy off-stage as well.

R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio - you are missed.

"The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes then steal your dreams, its Heaven and Hell oh well its Heaven And Hell" ... From "Heaven And Hell" Lyrics by Ronnie James Dio

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Heaven And Hell - Neon Nights: Live In Europe on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Z'ev - As/ If/ When

Along with Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and Cabaret Voltaire, Z’ev pioneered what we now call industrial music. Today, most people associate the term with nineties faves such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Things were very different in the late seventies, when the movement began.

The reference to industry was literal, and the music often sounded more like a sheet metal factory than songs. When the one man percussion orchestra known as Z’ev came along, this idea was taken to a whole new level. His “drum set” was a huge construct of oil barrels, PVC tubing, gongs, chimes, and junkyard finds, all suspended around him on ropes. Watching Z’ev perform is an amazing sight, a blur of motion as he improvises his way through each piece.

The new As/ If/ When collects three vintage examples of his percussive chaos. “As” (19:13) was recorded at the Los Angeles radio station KPFK in 1978. Of the three tracks, this one best represents his interests in non-Western musical forms. Incorporating various world rhythms and instruments, “As” is anything but noise. There is a definite structure to the piece, yet the delivery is as “free” as anything Z’ev’s hero John Coltrane ever did.

“If” (25:32) is where things get noisy. Recorded in his adopted hometown San Francisco in 1982, this is a raucous performance before a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Z’ev has always considered his appearances to be interactive, with the audience a vital ingredient in the mix. “If” is a vivid example of how well this approach can work.

The limited edition vinyl version is features "As" on one side and "If" on the other. The CD adds “When” (11:02) from a 1983 show in Amsterdam. It is another powerful piece, a little more cerebral than the others perhaps, but always intense.

There has never been much of a commercial appeal to Z’ev’s music, it is far too brutal. But for those looking for something a bit more adventurous than the usual fare, As/ If/ When is a worthy candidate.

Music Review: Wooden Wand - Death Seat

The stories are as old as the hills they come from. Robert Johnson spoke of the hellhound on his trail. Johnny Cash saw a burning ring of fire. Mark Lanegan offered whiskey to the Holy Ghost. What they and countless others have tried to relay is a vision of the great unknown. James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand, has seen a few things as well. The twelve country-blues songs that make up Death Seat feature occasional embellishments, but for the most part it is just him and his guitar.

The confirmation that James lives in a strange world is evident right from the beginning. “Sleepwalking After Midnight” is a nice tune, with a melody reminiscent of “Far Away Eyes” by the Stones. The lyrics are something entirely different though. This is a love song from the real America, a broadcast from deep in the old, weird South. Get it while you can is what James is saying, because “By the light of the watercolor sun, no one will recall what they’ve done.”

From there Toth heads straight to the source in “The Mountain.” Like a desperate hill-dwelling Nick Drake, he lays out a frightening vision of what it is to be truly alone. “I know a girl, who strips and shoots, she sees the world in absolutes,” he intones and you feel that you know her too. The tale is as dark as night, as is the delivery – and utterly riveting.

Title track “Death Seat" features some gorgeous interplay between mandolin and guitar, right behind the yarn James spins from his very own perch. While the subject matter is always mysterious, even threatening at times, the effect is (mostly) alleviated by the lighter music. But on “Hotel Bar,” the haunting words are matched with a truly desolate arrangement. Even the seemingly neutral sound of a strummed guitar sounds sinister when played behind a song that opens with the words “A hotel bar in the sky, where even your honesty is full of white lies.”

The album ends with a hymn titled “Tiny Confessions” and it is a necessary moment of redemption. Death Seat is the blues as poor white folks play (and live) it. It is the album Keith Richards would sell his rotten old soul to have made.

Article first published as Music Review: Wooden Wand - Death Seat on Blogcritics.

Music DVD Review: Frank Zappa - The Torture Never Stops

Halloween was Frank Zappa’s favorite holiday, and in 1981 he spent it performing two shows at The Palladium in New York City. Both sets were filmed, and later edited together for The Torture Never Stops DVD. It was previously available in truncated form through the Zappa family’s Honker Video imprint, this new Eagle Rock release is purportedly the definitive version.

The rhetorically titled Does Humor Belong In Music? came in 1986, but was thoroughly applicable to The Torture Never Stops. In fact, it was a question critics seemed to have been posing for Zappa’s entire career. Early satirical statements such as We’re Only In It For The Money were applauded as hilarious in 1967. Only a few years later though, songs like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow,” or “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” were deemed so juvenile as to be beneath contempt. Zappa professed not to care what the critics thought, but there were times that he was obviously exasperated by those who just didn’t get it.

For those of us who believed that humor very definitely did belong in music, the era showcased on this DVD was a golden one. The albums Sheik Yer Bouti, Joe’s Garage, and You Are What You Is were filled with stellar guitar playing, incredibly complex arrangements, and some of his funniest songs ever. Zappa previewed nearly half of the soon to be released You Are What You Is during these 1981 Halloween concerts, and the audiences ate it up.

Much of You Are What You Is address trendy subjects of the day. FZ looked at Urban Cowboys with “Harder Than Your Husband,” punk rock denizens in “Mudd Club,” big-time televangelists during “Heavenly Bank Account,” and the new Reagan-auts in “We’re Turning Again.” As great as these numbers were on vinyl, they seem somewhat superfluous in concert.

To watch Frank Zappa play live is to see one of the most underrated guitar players of all time at work. The show opens up with “Black Napkins,” a cousin of sorts to his various “Black Page” solo arrangements. The title references what the sheet music for a tune like this looks like, nothing but black ink. From there the set moves into the more traditional cuts, featuring those from You Are What You Is and others. “Montana" works well in this context, as do “Jumbo Go Away," and "Bamboozled By Love." Percussionist Ed Mann's Bob Dylan impression during "Flakes" is absolutely hilarious, the funniest moment of the entire concert for me.

Zappa always had the best musicians in the business playing with him. In 1981 a very young Steve Vai was along for the ride, and the guitar-slingers duel “Stevies Spanking” is an amazing showcase. The band slips into the lengthy “The Torture Never Stops” afterwards, which takes the level of musicianship up a few notches.The first encore, “Strictly Genteel,” maintains the awe-inspiring musical intensity, and the show comes to an end with the ever popular “Illinois Enema Bandit.”

The rarities in the bonus section are two more live tracks, "Teen Age Prostitute," and "City Of Tiny Lights." Finally there is an early video done for "You Are What You Is," which serves to show us just how primitive the format was back in 1981.

The Torture Never Stops is Frank Zappa in rare form. While he went on to compose serious classical works, play Broadway, battle the PMRC, and finally bow out gracefully, Zappa rarely looked happier than he does on this DVD. A must for FZ fans.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Frank Zappa - The Torture Never Stops on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Foetus - Hide

J.G. Thirlwell - aka Foetus, was a major player in the underground scene of the 1980s. In conjunction with others such as Lydia Lunch, Genesis P. Orridge, Coil, and The Hafler Trio, Foetus defined the bleeding edge of confrontational music during those “Family Values” days. While Robert Mapplethorpe and “Piss Christ” artist Andres Serrano had the Bush One-era NEA screaming for mercy, Foetus and his contemporaries seemed to provide the soundtrack.

Thirlwell’s use of samples, hand tools, traditional instruments, and the drum machine produced such classics as Ache, by You’ve Got Foetues On Your Breath (1982), and Nail from Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel (1985). By the mid-nineties the movement was largely played out. This may have been due to the less morally hysterical tone of the Clinton presidency, or to the fact that we were dealing with the far more dangerous Spice Girls. In any event, Thirlwell is probably best known today as the musical force behind the subversive Venture Bros. on Cartoon Network.

Hide is the first new Foetus album since Love (2005). Thirlwell describes it as a “Neo-symphonic avant-psychedelic concept album.” The term neo-symphonic certainly applies to the opening nine-minute opus “Cosmetics.” This is definitely music of grandeur, but with Thirlwell one can never be sure what his intentions are. It is a glorious way to open up an album, but the Wagnerian overtones are so strongly stated that one wonders if it is meant to be taken seriously or not.

In contrast, the psychedelic “Paper Slippers” is not at all ambiguous. The song itself is addressed to a person who is about to be committed. The music recalls that of the original Crazy Diamond, Syd Barrett. “You Stood Me Up” is Thirlwell working in full Venture Bros. mode. It is soundtrack music in the extreme, full of ridiculously overstated strings and bombast, underscoring the tragedy of being stood up for a date.

“Concrete” is an example of the artist working in the nearly forgotten Musiq Concrete genre, a form that John Cage perfected many years ago. “The Ballad Of Sisyphus T. Jones” hearkens back to the Foetus of old. The song mixes his trademark harsh elements with a nod toward the classic spaghetti western sounds of Sergio Leone.

Another “classic” Foetus piece is “Youre Trying To Break Me.” The overt vocal reference to The Residents in the opening segment of the tune make perfect sense for a musician as uncompromisingly experimental as Foetus. “O Putrid Sun” closes out this dispatch in a suitably maudlin way, the composer posing as director one last time.

Fans who have been wondering what happened to the musical terrorist Foetus should be heartened by Hide. Like all of his best work, it is a CD that keeps you guessing all the way through. Downloads are available at various sites, but physical copies are available exclusively at

Article first published as Music Review: Foetus - Hide on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Music Review: Motorpsycho - Timothy's Monster (Deluxe Edition)

In 1994, Norway’s Motorpsycho released one of the greatest “unheard” albums of all time, Timothy’s Monster. It was a double CD/triple LP affair on a tiny Norwegian label, and never had much of a chance. In an act of either unprecedented hubris, or simple commercial suicide, independent Rune Grammofon Records have doubled-down on Timothy‘s Monster with this 4-CD box set. It is a lot of things, not the least of which is being one of the coolest retrospective packages ever.

With all due respect, Motorpsycho originally belonged on Sub Pop. When they formed in 1989, their mix of post-hardcore punk and seventies rock was a style that would eventually come to be known as grunge. Just like Mudhoney, they took their name from a classic Russ Meyer film. Even the flannel shirts and heavy boots they wore put them in line with their Seattle brethren.

Although Motorpsycho were musical lumberjacks who had much in common with the Sub Pop bands of the time, their isolation was nearly total. So while the rest of the world became enamored of grunge, Motorpsycho’s music progressed at a pace all its own. Timothy’s Monster was their third album, and is a remarkably diverse collection of styles. By playing what they wanted, the band came up with music that was miles ahead of what the rest of the rock world was doing. It was also a very obvious inspiration to both Billy Corgan and Wayne Coyne, two of the most celebrated artists of the era.

The strummed acoustic guitar of “Feel” sets the stage perfectly for the tour de force to follow. From there “Trapdoor” opens into a world both inviting and forbidding. The irresistible hook at the heart of the song gives way to a frighteningly powerful guitar solo midway, then returns triumphantly. This give and take is a common musical theme throughout the album, but is by no means the only one.

Track five, “Kill Some Day,” is where the first flashes of indisputable brilliance shine through. For many self-described “Psychonauts” the feedback-drenched tune is the band at their absolute peak. It is an unforgettable riff that finds our heroes valiantly carrying on the punk torch dropped long before by such greats as The Replacements and Husker Du. The song makes one wonder at what might have been, had the rest of the world heard it at the time.

There are plenty of other moments like this as well. “Wearing Yr Smell,” “Giftland,” and “Watersound” all reward repeated listens. “Giftland” in particular takes the listener in a proto-Goth direction, reminding me of a band they may or may not have been familiar with, Manchester’s Crispy Ambulance. Closing out the first disc is “Watersound,” an acoustic/electric powerhouse that sums up what had come before in a most satisfying way.

If Timothy’s Monster ended there, it would still be considered a little-known classic. But the four songs on the second disc take the record into a whole new realm. At 17 minutes, “The Wheel” changed Timothy’s Monster completely. The band had actually already recorded and settled on the running order of the original single-CD version of the album, before heading out on a short tour.

“The Wheel” was written and recorded during the tour, and it represented a major departure for them. The drone Motorpsycho have come to be known for defines this monolithic slab of sound. The song recalls the sinister organ of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” at times, all the while building up to an explosion not unlike that of Television’s “Marquee Moon.” It is a remarkably hypnotic reverie, and the acoustic “Sungravy” that follows comes as a necessary moment of relief.

The respite passes quickly, though, as the most intense four minutes of Motorpsycho’s career are up next, in the aptly titled “Grindstone.” From there we reach the end of Timothy’s Monster, and the gorgeous 13-minute “The Golden Core.” I am reminded of the sun coming up after a particularly eventful evening with this piece. Yet the feedback squalls in the final moments hint at even more layers hidden somewhere in the complexities of this incredible album. It makes you want to start the whole trip again, to see if you missed anything the first time around.

They always knew how appropriate an ending “The Golden Core” was for their magnum opus, as it would have been in the same position in the original running order. The reason I know that “The Golden Core” was to be the final track is that the third disc is the unreleased first edition of Timothy’s Monster.

It was to contain 13 tracks total, of which two did not make the final cut, “Very 90’s, Very Aware” and “Innersfree.” Both are interesting, but not necessarily great losses, especially in contrast to what was added, “The Wheel,” “Feel,” “Wearing Yr Smell,” and “Beautiful Sister.”

The fourth disc is titled “The Ones That Got Away: B Sides and Outtakes.” That old Who title Odds And Sods has never been a more apt description of what is contained on this CD. Showing their range of interests in no uncertain terms, there are covers of Ace Frehley's “Shock Me,” Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Working For MCA,” and “New Day Rising” by Husker Du.

A number of Timothy’s songs appear in edited versions, and some previously unreleased tracks are also included. The weirdest has to be “Mr. Butterclut Goes To The Fair, Meets The Viscount, And That’s Where We Leave Him At The End Of This Episode…” Motorpsycho’s debt to The Grateful Dead is acknowledged with the very cool “Giftland Jam.”

Timothy’s Monster is a record that came out a long time ago, yet still feels fresh today. That may be because it was so far ahead of its time, or perhaps because it is just so damned good. Whatever the case may be, it is an album a lot of people (myself included) did not hear the first time around. For those so inclined, it is highly recommended.

Music Review: Syd Barrett - An Introduction To Syd Barrett

When Syd Barrett passed in 2006, there were two things mentioned in every obituary. He founded Pink Floyd in 1966, and left them in 1968 as rock’s first “acid casualty.” The stories surrounding Barrett’s breakdown are fascinating, but they threaten to overshadow the shear brilliance he often displayed as a musician. The new collection An Introduction To Syd Barrett is the first to incorporate his work with Pink Floyd with his later solo material.

The eighteen songs are presented in chronological order, making Syd’s deterioration painfully apparent. “Arnold Layne” was Pink Floyd’s first single, and the appropriate lead track. It is a pure slice of Swinging London psychedelia, circa 1967. The lyrics concern a transvestite who steals women’s clothing, and got the record banned, although it still managed to chart at number 20. The next single “See Emily Play,” had no such controversy attached, and went to number six.

EMI were impressed enough to fund an album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Of the eleven songs, ten were either written or co-written by Syd Barrett. The six Floyd songs here share a whimsical lyrical tone, but the power of the full band is what really drives them. There is an edge to Barrett’s voice, and to the music itself that is almost explosive. It is as if everything is teetering on the verge of total collapse.

In contrast, Syd’s solo work is nearly somnolent. An Introduction illustrates the differences vividly. The last Pink Floyd track included, “Bike” is an intense rant from a seemingly unhinged fellow. The solo “Terrapin” follows, with Barrett singing “I really love you, and I mean you,” as he lazily strums his acoustic guitar. Whatever demons that plagued him before no longer seem to trouble him. In fact, nothing seems to bother him anymore. From the tone of his voice, the subject matter, and the songs as a whole, we are hearing what remains of a man who has checked out.

His first solo album, The Madcap Laughs was released in 1970. The title comes from a line in the song “Octopus,” and could not be more apt. The tracks had been worked on sporadically since his final appearance on a Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful Of Secrets in 1968. Syd’s permanent replacement in Floyd was David Gilmour, who produced both Madcap, and the later Barrett. By all accounts, the sessions were trying.

The music that emerged though was surprisingly coherent, especially so on The Madcap Laughs. There is a nod to the very British “music hall” style on both “Love You,” and “Here I Go.” The latter has been treated to a new mix, and Gilmour has added a bass guitar to it as well. Any doubts about where Barrett was psychologically are dispelled with the unnerving “If It’s In You.”

His second and final solo excursion, Barrett sounds like a thoroughly collaborative affair with some of the era's finest musicians. In truth, it is a valiant effort by Syd’s friends to salvage Madcap’s leftovers. Gilmour, and members of Soft Machine have fleshed out the slight sketches Barrett left behind to great effect on “Dominoes,” and “Gigolo Aunt.” The wordplay that Barrett was so known for previously is highlighted one last time with “Effervescing Elephant.”

The CD closes with the rare “Bob Dylan Blues” from 1970. The song had been in Gilmour’s private collection up until the compilation Wouldn’t You Miss Me in 2001. It is a worthy tribute/send-up of someone Syd Barrett obviously admired a great deal.

An Introduction To Syd Barrett is exactly what it says it is. By including his early work with Pink Floyd with his later solo material, we get a well-rounded picture of what the man’s music was all about. Barrett will always be a footnote in the story of Pink Floyd, but his departure haunted them throughout their career. Many of the songs on both Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wall deal with it. On Wish You Were Here, they were explicit — nearly the entire album was about him.

For the curious, this is an excellent place to start in getting to know the music of Syd Barrett.

Article first published as Music Review: Syd Barrett - An Introduction To Syd Barrett on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Iggy Pop & James Williamson - Kill City

The largely untold story of Kill City makes it the most fascinating album Iggy Pop ever recorded. It is also one of his best. Thanks to an effective campaign, not a lot of people really know what Kill City actually is. To set the record straight, it is the “lost” fourth album from The Stooges.

James Williamson had taken over Stooges’ guitar on Raw Power, and his style fit the music perfectly. When he and Pop sat down to write the next one, the songs came quickly. But not quickly enough, because CBS had already dropped them. In the summer of 1975 they began recording demo versions of the songs, to help find a new label with. On weekends Iggy was riding a bus to the studio to lay down his vocals. The rest of his time was spent in a mental hospital, kicking heroin.

The sad truth was that no other labels were interested either. Not long after this, Iggy famously joined David Bowie in Berlin, where his “comeback” would be engineered. Presumably, Williamson had paid for the Kill City studio time, and owned the tapes. Not that ownership seemed to matter much, as the project had been abandoned.

But with Iggy’s star ascendent thanks to Bowie, pioneering indie label Bomp Records became interested in the demos. Williamson was given an advance to get the songs into releasable condition. They were mixed, and various overdubs were added. In November 1977, Kill City was released on Bomp, on vivid green vinyl. The critical reception ranged from complete silence to outright hostility. And that has pretty much been the “official” line ever since. Iggy himself was very likely the main foe, he probably saw Kill City as unwanted competition to Bowie-produced albums The Idiot and Lust For Life.

I am absolutely certain that if Kill City had been properly recorded, it would now be considered a classic. In fact, all of the hosannas that greeted Raw Power’s reissue would have been recycled for Kill City‘s: “Ahead of their time,” “A band at the peak of their powers,” “Godfathers of Punk,” and so on.

Even with the cards stacked against it in so many ways, Kill City is still pretty amazing. Disregarding the three instrumental tracks, there are eight solid Pop/Williamson songs, and every one of them stands with Iggy’s best.

The CD leads off with “Kill City,” picking up right where “Search And Destroy” left off. You could not ask for a better way to begin the follow-up to Raw Power. As “Sell Your Love” shows though, Iggy had more on his mind than just repeating previous triumphs. This is a vicious ballad with lines like, “With any luck I’m sure that you will rise from slut to prostitute.” The thing is, the song seems like Iggy talking to himself more than anyone else.

“Beyond The Law” returns to the explosive style they are so known for, with some great outlaw imagery. “I Got Nothin’” is another step forward, the tune uses wild dynamics and changes tempos at will. Williamson gets off a nice solo midway through it too.

The brilliant “Johanna” is next, and it is simply one of the best songs Iggy Pop has ever recorded. Fellow Detroit madman Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” gets a nod. But it is the addition of some Albert Ayler-inspired sax, ala Funhouse — that pushes this track over the top. Iggy is at an artistic peak, there is no question about it. This song alone makes the album better than pretty much anything that came after 1980, and that includes a lot of records.

On the LP, side one closed, and side two opened with a short instrumental piece called “Night Theme.” Then comes another good-time rocker “Consolation Prize” followed by the mid-tempo “No Sense Of Crime.“ Both seem autobiographical, like “Sell Your Love,” but only Iggy would know for sure, and it doesn‘t seem like he is talking.

“Lucky Monkey” is Iggy’s ode to L. A. starfuckers, and it’s a pretty funny one at that. Finally, there is an instrumental titled “Master Charge.”

Kill City is the most underrated album of Iggy’s career. Conventional wisdom has always held that the album is fatally flawed. Don’t believe it for a second. Any fan of Raw Power-era Stooges is going to find a lot to like on Kill City. It is definitely a reissue worth checking out.

Article first published as Music Review: Iggy Pop & James Williamson - Kill City on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Badfinger - No Dice (Remastered Edition)

No Dice (1970) marks the beginning of Badfinger’s all too brief “golden era.” Although Magic Christian Music (1970) was technically their first LP, it was a mixed bag of previous recordings, spanning a period of years. The majority of the songs came from when they were still known as The Iveys, as a matter of fact. And as good as “Come And Get It” was, the song was written by Paul McCartney. Every tune on No Dice was written by the band. They felt they had something to prove with this album, and put everything they had into getting it right.

The triumphant guitar chords that open the record say it all. “I Can’t Take It,” is a defiant statement — telling one and all that from here on out, they will be calling the shots. The fact that such a powerful sentiment is couched in the good-time pub rock sounds that were just beginning to catch on at the time just make it that much more fun.

No Dice contains one of their biggest, (and best) hits, “No Matter What.” The big guitars of this virtually flawless tune are still a thing of wonder, and the joyous delivery — complete with handclaps, never grows old. “No Matter What,” is considered by many to be the first “power pop” song, a genre that would flourish in the coming years.

For many, “No Matter What” is definitive Badfinger, but their albums are actually quite varied stylistically. A form that was just coming into its own at the time was country-rock. To illustrate just how long ago 1970 was, The Eagles did not even exist yet. The idea of adding some country flavor to a rock song was still a fresh one. The tracks “Blodwyn,“ and “Better Days,“ both show Badfinger experimenting in this vein.

They also had a predilection for ballads, which are the only weak spots on No Dice for me. Don’t get me wrong, they are good songs. I just think it would be a better record with a couple less is all. “It Had To Be” is one I would certainly keep though, and it would be pretty impossible to deny “Without You.” Before I bought No Dice, I thought Harry Nilsson had written “Without You.” It was his biggest hit after all, and it certainly did not sound like anything I had heard by Badfinger at the time. But they did write it, and even released it as a single, which went nowhere. No Dice ends on a high note with “Were For The Dark,” a laid-back tune that strikes just the right tone in summing up what had come before.

This newly remastered edition of No Dice is part of the Capitol-EMI/Apple Records reissue series. Not only have they done a superb job remastering it, but five bonus tracks have been included as well. My favorite of these is the extended version of “I Can’t Take It,” which has even more guitar action. The demo versions of “Without You,” and “No Matter What” are also interesting curios.

No Dice was the record Badfinger came into their own on. It remains one of their finest, and it paved the way for the extraordinary Straight Up, which has also been remastered.

Article first published as Music Review: Badfinger - No Dice (Remastered Edition) on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Badfinger - Magic Christian Music

Magic Christian Music was Badfinger's first album, released in early 1970 on Apple Records. The lead single, “Come And Get It,” had been written and produced by Paul McCartney, and would become their first Top 10 hit.

Badfinger seemed poised for superstardom. They were arguably the most promising group of the year, if not the decade ahead. Yet their story is one of the most tragic the rock world has ever known. Of the four original members who appear on Magic Christian Music, two would take their own lives just a few years later.

Maybe the problems were there from the beginning, after all Magic Christian Music was certainly one of the strangest debut albums of all time. In fact, it is not at all what it was advertised to be, but rather a compilation of old material with a couple of new songs added.

The soundtrack to the Peter Sellers / Ringo Starr film Magic Christian Music was to be released on The Beatles' Apple Records label. One of Apple's big new signings was a group called Badfinger, who were contributing three songs to the project. It sounded like a good way to introduce the band, while they recorded a proper first album for later release. Plans changed, however, when Apple lost the rights to the soundtrack.

Badfinger was the new name for a group who had previously been known as The Iveys. They had been kicking around London for years, and had been signed by Apple in 1968. They even had an album out, and although it was extremely limited in availability, it was out there nonetheless. Someone had the bright idea to compile the best older Iveys tracks with the newly recorded material and release the result as Badfinger’s debut.

A quick aside: For such a supposedly Utopian company as Apple Records, doesn’t this sound like a classic record biz rip-off? I can just hear Morris Levy or someone like him explaining the scam: “Throw a couple new songs in with the old crap, slap a new cover on it, and Bingo! You got a brand new record!”

Essentially, that is Magic Christian Music. Although the recording qualities, songwriting, and styles are wildly divergent, there is some great music on it. It just is nowhere near the album it was billed to be. McCartney’s “Come And Get It” is far and away the best cut, and the two he produced for the movie, “Carry On Till Tomorrow” and “Rock Of All Ages” are not far behind. Of the older Iveys tracks, “Midnight Sun” has a great rock sound, and “Crimson Ship” even reminds me of the Fabs.

Separating The Iveys from the Badfinger and Paul McCartney surroundings is the only way to really appreciate this record. Maybe one day The Iveys will get credit for the cool mid-sixties band they were, especially on period pieces like “Knocking Down Our Home” and ”Mrs. Jones."

The Iveys album that Apple released in 1969 was titled Maybe Tomorrow, and the main reason they were able to pillage it was because at the time it was only available in Japan, West Germany, and Italy. For those interested in delving a little deeper, the record has been issued on CD a few times over the years by various companies.

This new edition of Magic Christian Music has been completely remastered as part of the new Capital EMI/ Apple Records reissue series. In addition to the 14 songs of the original release, five bonus cuts are also included. These are all various mixes or edits of Iveys songs from Maybe Tomorrow.

Magic Christian Music is an odd duck, more of a late-period Iveys collection than anything else. But there is some wonderful music contained on it, and will reward those who are especially fond of pre-psychedelic British rock.

At the end of 1970, Badfinger released the record they had spent most of the year working on, No Dice. This is where the Badfinger saga truly begins, and it too has just been remastered and reissued with bonus tracks.

Article first published as Music Review: Badfinger - Magic Christian Music on Blogcritics.

Music Review: David Tavener - The Whale/ Celtic Requiem

Sir John Tavener was the first and only classical composer ever signed to Apple Records. Like every other artist on the ill-fated label (save The Beatles themselves), his tenure would be brief. But young John Tavener fared better than many of his fellow Apple artists. He even managed to get a second album out before the label imploded.

The Beatles acted as Apple’s A & R department for a short time, and they all had pet projects. Paul was working closely with Badfinger, George was busy producing Jackie Lomax, and John was focused on Yoko. Ringo needed something to do, too, so he found a prospect of his own. By signing John Tavener to the label, Ringo inadvertantly became the Beatle who brought high culture to Apple.

Ringo’s appreciation of Tavener’s music must have been sincere. A few years after the dust had settled in the Apple business, Ringo started RingO Records. His first order of business was to re-release The Whale, Tavener’s Apple debut.

In 1968, there was no “Sir” appended to John Tavener’s name. He was just trying to get noticed with The Whale, his musical version of the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale. The premiere was at the landmark debut of the London Sinfonietta, a huge event which helped to put him on the cultural map.

Using the same musicians who had performed it onstage, Tavener entered the studios to record The Whale. Apparently it sold well, because in 1971 Apple released Tavener’s second album, Celtic Requiem. The two albums went out of print when Apple folded, and would be unavailable for the next 40 years. Capitol EMI are now reissuing these long-lost recordings on CD, for the first time ever.

The Whale and Celtic Requiem have been combined on one disc, which
is nice. The eight-part composition “The Whale” comes first. The piece is considered a dramatic cantata, a form similar to light opera. The story is told through music and song, but not at the intense level of a full production like The Ring.

Celtic Requiem is important because it is the first Tavener album to be devoted exclusively to religious compositions, which would dominate his work in later years. It is the music he is most identified with as a composer, and the work that lead to his knighthood, in 2000.

Celtic Requiem’s title piece is a three-part, 22-minute exploration of deep emotion. The remaining two tracks are “Nomine Jesu,” and “Coplas.” Both are solemn, mysterious, even frightening at times. The intent seems to be to evoke thoughts of the hereafter and the glories of the deities.

Releasing the music of John Tavener to a public who were expecting something more in line with the Top 40 was a huge risk for Apple. Sir John Tavener’s fame, fortune, and knighthood came to him many years later, but it says a lot that a musician of his caliber was discovered and nurtured by The Beatles.

His compositions remain as powerful as they were forty years ago. Good music never gets old, and if you enjoy original compositions, this disc is worth looking into.

Article first published as Music Review: David Tavener - The Whale/ Celtic Requiem on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Current 93 - Baalstorm, Sing Omega

The musical journey of Current 93 was launched nearly three decades ago, by a man Genesis P. Orridge renamed “David Tibet.” The rotating tribe who gather to work when the call comes from Tibet are Current 93.

Baalstorm, Sing Omega is their most recent offering. Like last year's Aleph From Hallucinatory Mountain, Baalstorm uses the antique long-poem form known as the Epic. It is a stylistic device more closely associated with ancient Greek mythology than with the modern age. But writing in such a forgotten style seems to be a challenge Tibet enjoys.

There are significant musical differences between the two CDs. Much greater attention was paid to the songs on Aleph than to those on Baalstorm. The variety of tempos and instrumental sounds on Aleph worked to maintain a high level of interest. Those considerations are ignored on Baalstorm, Sing Omega. The new music often feels chiseled in stone, set forever. The cadence Tibet employs as he recites Baalstorm is also singular. It is as if any use of dynamics would destroy the listener’s concentration, rendering the entire undertaking worthless.

The subject matter of the two fables may be their biggest distinctions. Aleph chronicles a long journey to Hallucinatory Mountain. Baalstorm, Sing Omega also speaks of a journey, but one through the inside, an exploration of the self. If Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain is David Tibet’s version of The Odyssey, then Baalstorm, Sing Omega must be his Paradise Lost.

Homer and Milton are heady company for a dirty, former industrial-music pioneer like Tibet. But they are the masters of the Epic, his chosen form of expression, and are brought up as a reminder of what is being attempted.

As for the abrasive sounds Current 93 once specialized in, they are long gone. The music is mostly acoustic now, one memorable description being "apocalyptic folk.” The term suits much of Baalstorm, Sing Omega. Tibet’s darkly imagistic lyrics combine with randomly cruel melodies for powerful, often unpleasant sensations.

During the final cut, “I Dance Narcoleptic,” the ominous threats hinted at earlier are finally revealed. This is a gloriously scary track, depicting the unseen (and therefore horrifying) conclusions to which we jump. It may not be pretty, but it will command your attention in absolute terms.

Besides the final track, the music is pretty mellow overall. If you choose to follow the carefully arranged story, stay alert. Current 93 do not mess around. To paraphrase Baalstorm‘s most salient point, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Article first published as Music Review: Current 93 - Baalstorm, Sing Omega on Blogcritics

Music Review: The Black Crowes - Croweology

As one of the great American bands of the past twenty years, The Black Crowes have just about seen and done it all. They have also stubbornly followed their music, no matter where it led them, or how unpopular it might have been. It is a trait that has earned the respect of fans and critics alike for many years now, regardless of their chart status.

But it all may be coming to an end with the release of Croweology. Strong rumors have surfaced that the tumultuous group will call it a day after the tour. If so, the guys will have pulled off something that nobody thought possible, a graceful exit from the big tent of rock 'n' roll.

Croweology is a two-disc set, and features twenty newly recorded acoustic versions of classic tracks. The music is played fast and loose, in what sounds at times like a live-in-the-studio setting. All the key elements are here, from gospel to blues, rock to soul, with some serious jamming along the way. The classic early seventies vibe they like so much is ever present, and a couple of new tricks are added to make things even more interesting.

There is no denying that the selection is weighted strongly toward the first four albums. But with songs like “She Talks To Angels,” “Thorn In My Pride,” and “Remedy” in pocket, who can blame them? Gospel was a big influence early on, but became less of a factor after The Southern Home And Music Companion. The sound returns via some gorgeous choral backgrounds, and is utilized on a number of tracks, including “Jealous Again,” “Soul Singing,” and “Morning Song.”

The hippie tendencies that The Black Crowes have always proudly identified with are here as well. Say what you want, but The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers both made some incredible music in their day. Chris and Rich Robinson obviously agree, paying tribute in with “Thorn In My Pride,” and the outstanding “Non Fiction.”

The Faces were another major inspiration, most noticeably on the first two albums. With the arrangement of “Welcome To The Good Times” the band alter the script a bit by looking back at some solo Rod Stewart material, circa 1971. Their reworking of the tune and the prominent placing of the mandolin would have fit nicely on Rod’s classic Every Picture Tells A Story.

The most striking addition to the music of The Black Crowes comes from what may seem an unlikely source at first. Most people agree that Van Morrison recorded some of his best work between 1970-74, with albums like Moondance and Veedon Fleece. What never seems to get acknowledged though is the amazing accompaniment he received from the band he had at the time.

The Black Crowes certainly understand the vitality of what that band were doing. They have internalized the unique sound and arranged “Ballad In Urgency,” and “Wiser Time” in much the same way. The results are two of the best cuts I think I have ever heard from them.

I would hate to see the Crowes pack it in, but the rumors could wind up being true in the end. The greatest hits format of Croweology is the most damning evidence for this being the case. There is no getting around the fact that it is a summing up of their career, no matter how you look at it. One big plus for the band is that If things do end now, they have managed to go out on a high note. Croweology would be remembered as a goodby gesture done with both dignity and class.

Article first published as Music Review: The Black Crowes - Croweology on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Bionic Woman: The First Season

The Bionic Woman was a “spin-off” of the one of television’s most popular shows, The Six Million Dollar Man. Lindsay Wagner starred as title character Jaime Sommers, a woman who had been given enhanced “bionic” limbs during a life-saving medical procedure. Just like her friend Steve Austin (Lee Majors), whose artificial limbs were estimated to be worth six million dollars, Jaime Sommers now owed her life to the governent doctors who had treated her.

With The Six Million Dollar Man acting as the lead-in for The Bionic Woman, the show was an instant hit when it debuted in 1976. Heroine Sommers struck such a chord with viewers that she quickly became an iconic '70s figure.

Watching the 13 one-hour episodes of the first season recently, I was struck by how different the tone was from The Six Million Dollar Man. Although the show was written by men, there is a distinctly feminine, even femnist feel to it at times. Clearly, a great deal more effort was put into this program than its spin-off origins suggest.

Jaime Sommers became a freelance agent for the group who had saved her life, the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence). Supervisor Oscar Goldman (Richard Andersen) claimed she would a have a light schedule of assignments, but as the season unfolded she became one busy bionic babe.

Goldman like her to work undercover whenever possible. Her best assignment was as a contestant in the Miss USA Beauty Pageant. In “Bionic Beauty” Bert Parks more or less plays an evil version of himself who is attempting to smuggle out top-secret technology. Before Jaime can foil his plans, she must first compete in the talent show however. Her version of the song "Feelings” is so incredibly bad that I could not figure out whether it was intended as a joke or not. The DVD set is worth getting for this scene alone.

Every once in a while Jaimee is faced with some pretty strange situations. In one instance, a woman undergoes plastic surgery to become her twin. The imposter manages to wreak havoc for a little while, but not long. She was never a match for the real Bionic Woman.

In a backstory, we find out that Jaime’s parents had been killed in an auto accident when she was very young. In “Jaimee’s Mother” a woman claims that the accident was staged, that she is Jaime’s mother, alive and well. Oscar helps out, but the truth is almost as difficult as the alternative was for her.

The season finale, “The Ghost Hunter” is another supernatural tale. This one concerns an angry ghost who objects to a secret government project being built in the area. Naturally enough, it singles Jaimee out for special treatment, before the ruse is exposed.

Quite a number of guest stars appeared in the first season. Among them were Andy Griffith, Donald O’Connor, Forrest Tucker, Tippi Hedren, Gary Collins, and even young Kristy McNichol. Lee Majors pops in every now and then as Steve “Six Million Dollar Man” Austin, just to shake things up a bit, I guess.

The Bionic Woman: Season One is a four-DVD set. The big bonus is a full disc of Six Million Dollar Man-Bionic Woman crossover episodes. There were five Six Million Dollar Man shows with her before The Bionic Woman launched. Their inclusion is an excellent addition to the package. The early programs provide background on their previous relationship, her bionic transformation, the difficulties she later had, and much more.

There are a couple more bonus features as well. The 24-minute “Bionic Beginnings” presents brand new interviews with members of the cast, writers, and directors about their experiences with the show. Rounding things out are a short Gag Reel, and a Picture Gallery.

The nostalgic appeal of these shows is obvious. But I In watching The Bionic Woman again, I found it to be a much better program than I remembered it as. Especially with the bonus episodes included, I highly recommend this set for fans of the genre.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Bionic Woman: The First Season on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Brute Force - I, Brute Force, Confections Of Love

Brute Force is the nom de’ plume of Stephen Friedland, a man who began his music career as a New York session player in the early sixties. It was a good place for an aspiring musician to be, and he made a number of important contacts. Enough to land him a deal with Columbia Records as it happened, who released his debut I, Brute Force, Confections Of Love in 1967.

The album was a stiff, and Columbia dropped him. But it did bring him a couple of high profile fans in John Lennon and George Harrison. They signed him to Apple, and released a single in 1968. One thousand copies of “The Kind Of Fuh” b/w “Nobody Knows” were sent out, then EMI Capitol dropped the hammer. They refused to distribute the record because of its forbidden lyrical content. The chorus of “All hail the Fuh King” sounded a little too much like “fucking” for them, and that was the end of his tenure as an Apple artist.

Brute Force is a musician I have heard a great deal about over the years, but have never previously had opportunity to listen to. So I was pretty excited to hear that is was to be reissued. I did wonder whether an obscure 43 year old record could ever live up to the expectations I had for it though.

Confections Of Love does live up to its reputation as a classic, but not in the ways I had originally expected it to. Rather than being the suave, confident, obviously appealing album I always thought it would be, Confections is an insidious charmer. What immediately struck me was the wide variety of musical styles used to deliver some of the most absurd and surreal lyrics ever. Confections Of Love is such a winning combination of music and humor, I just cannot imagine someone listening to it and not smiling by the end.

Besides “King Of Fuh” I was especially impressed with the opening track, “In Jim’s Garage.” It is an excellent example of the depths Brute Force goes in to set the perfect stage for his songs. As a parody of sixties-era suburban snobbery, there is nothing else like it. Musically reminiscent of “Leader Of The Pack,” and other “teen tragedy” ditties, we dread what will be revealed. And it is tragic news for the parents, their daughter has fallen in love with a mechanic, and now spends her time “In Jim’s Garage.”

Many of the songs play out like mini-movies. At times he will deliver both sides of a conversation so easily you do not even notice. Elsewhere he so fully sets the scene that you can almost see it unfold. The effortless use of various musical genres to convey the intent of each song is the most remarkable aspect of the album to me though.

Bar None has just reissued I, Brute Force, Confections Of Love in an expanded edition. In addition to the original 11 tracks, it includes both sides of the Apple single, plus three previously unreleased tracks recorded around the same time. Confections Of Love really is a lost classic, and I hope other like-minded souls discover it this time around.

Article first published as Music Review: Brute Force - I, Brute Force, Confections Of Love on Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking by Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkins

“The truth is, cigarettes are pleasurable.”

With these words the reader is launched into a strange netherworld that revolves around cigarettes. It is a place devoid of rules, morals, or polite behavior. One in which the culture dictates that anything goes, and everything is up for grabs. The Cigarette Book: The History And Culture Of Smoking collects hundreds of items that reflect this worldview, all are part and parcel of the smoking lifestyle.

As the title indicates, the book is focused almost exclusively on manufactured cigarettes, as opposed to other tobacco products. The cigarette as we know it today is a uniquely twentieth century phenomenon. In 1900, tobacco was mainly consumed in pipes, cigars, or cigarettes of the roll-your-own variety. By 1910, sales of factory-rolled cigs had exploded, reaching 8.6 billion for the year. The Cigarette Century had begun in earnest.

The huge sales broke the nascent industry wide open. Suddenly everyone
had important business dealings with the tobacco companies. These included reps from advertising, corporate sponsors, labor and industry, pro-smoking groups, anti-smoking groups, health studies… the list is endless, because it has never stopped growing, and never will.

The Cigarette Book compiles this unwieldy group of interested parties in a format much like that of a small encyclopedia. The first entry is "aardvark” (which refers to a surreal Winston ad) and the final is “Zippo” (about the iconic lighter). Each item is explained with a few brief, descriptive paragraphs, some of which include illustrations.

One thing that makes this such an enjoyable read are the peculiar things the authors discovered. Take the entry titled “Global Warming.” In 2006, former tobacco farmer Al Gore stood in front of a group from the UN and told them that cigarettes were a “significant contributor” to global warming. Apparently he even managed to keep a straight face when he said it.

Ever wonder what the biggest boondoggle the cigarette companies ever faced might be? It was a brand called Premier, the world’s first smokeless smoke. The public hated it, and Premier lasted about as long as New Coke did. When the brand was rolled out in 1988, the overall cost was estimated to be over $300 million.

The “Slang” section features obscure terms used for cigarettes over the years. These include “Durries” (from Australia), “Gaspers,” (for cheap brands), “Tabs” (Specific to Northern U.S.), and the ever popular “Coffin Nails,” which has been traced back to a magazine article published in 1867.

There are some celebrities who will always be associated with smoking. A number of them are profiled, including Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Bette Davis, John Wayne, and Laurence Olivier. Beginning in 1956, Sir Laurence even had his very own “Olivier” brand of cigarettes. Legend has it that he blackmailed theatres to stock only Olivier brand smokes in their vending machines if they ever wished for him to grace their stage.

Quite a few U.S. Presidents were smokers, but none were as devoted to the habit as Lyndon Johnson. At his peak, LBJ smoked three packs a day. Another heavy smoker in the world of politics was “Uncle Joe” Stalin. While he puffed like a chimney in meetings, nobody else was allowed to smoke at all.

On the opposing team, Adolph Hitler quit his pack a day habit and became the original anti-smoking zealot. Much like the evil-doers of today, Hitler taxed and banned cigarettes everywhere he could. According to the book, when der Fuehrer killed himself, the first thing his staff members did was break out the smokes.

The Cigarette Book is full of interesting, funny, and sometimes downright bizarre bits of trivia about smoking. Whether you are a three pack a day LBJ type, or an anti-smoking fanatic like Hitler, you are bound to find something to enjoy here. My copy now resides in the holiest place of all for books. In the bathroom, right next to the toilet.

Article first published as Book Review: The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking by Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkins on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Sand Snowman - Nostalgia Ever After

With Nostalgia Ever After, Sand Snowman proudly carries on the noble tradition of the eccentric British musician. His name is the first tip-off, and the cryptic puzzle of the album clinches it. With qualities both oddly familiar, yet thoroughly distant, this type of music is rarely heard anymore. Call it what you will, but such depths of emotion have previously only been heard from "mad" artists such as Syd Barrett or Nick Drake.

Lead track "Hemlock Garden" is a haunting mix of woodwinds and acoustic guitar. It is an especially effective method Sand uses to trigger the mind into recalling certain thoughts and feelings. I was reminded of childhood days in summertime, defiantly staying out too late, and secretly becoming more and more frightened as night grew closer. These are powerful memories that had lain dormant for a very long time. In some alchemical way, the music of Sand Snowman brought them forward for me. Not a bad result from the first listen of a new CD, and that was just the opener. “One Summer” follows, it is in a similar vein to what came before, and reinforces the nearly tactile sensations.

Visionaries such as Drake and Barrett had a gift. Backed with nothing more than their own guitars, they could take a listener to places he had never known existed. “An Evening In The Fall,” is a great example of Sand Snowman’s abilities to do the same. By using almost imperceptible chord progressions, the song slowly builds a series of layers. Suddenly the tension is released, as if a massive blast of wind had appeared out of nowhere. It leaves everything that came before it stripped completely bare.

The majestic beauty of the moment is maintained with two brief instrumental tracks. “Whats Your Poison,” and “Nostalgia Ever After” hold our interest, while quietly shifting the tone. This was a favored technique of The Incredible String Band, another influential British group that Sand Snowman has acknowledged an affinity for.

An ill-advised detour into a dark and very cold structure is where “Waves” appears to begin. The children’s rhymes are so troublingly insistent, they seem to be built into the surroundings. This is an extremely uncomfortable stop, and when a change in the music comes, it is a relief. Sand treats us to some solo guitar, which resemble something Steve Hackett might have played in similar circumstances. The interlude is a momentary breath of fresh air, before the crashing waves of the song's title take over.

The imagery Sand Snowman creates so effortlessly with his music is remarkable. “The City Sleeps” is disconcertingly quiet after so much turmoil. But there is no sense of a resolution, in fact one is filled with a sense of trepidation. The placid surface of the music represents blissful slumber, but the careful listener will notice tiny jagged edges underneath. They are clues that dreadful events may be just around the corner.

“To The Flame” is the final track, and once again the soothing sound of folk ballads are called upon to set the stage. Whether the flame represents the end, or a new beginning to the tale is left up to the listener to decide. The Golden Rule of Sand Snowman seems to be an encouragment to use his music as a starting point for one's new, or in some cases temporarily misplaced visions.

The surprisingly lovely tones the album ends with make everything seem to be from an Oz - like dream. Mysterious, thought-provoking, and absolutely beautiful in places, Nostalgia Ever After rewards repeated listenings. This is music that would appeal to a broad range of people, if they ever get the chance to hear it. There really is nothing else quite like Sand Snowman, or his impressive new record, out there these days.

Article first published as Music Review: Snd Snowman - Nostalgia Ever After on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Mary Tyler Moore Show - The Complete Seventh Season

The seventh and final season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is now available as a triple-DVD set. Fans of the acclaimed series are excused for scratching their heads at how long it has taken for all the shows to come out. Nevertheless, the release of the concluding 24 episodes is a welcome occasion, for this was one of the finest television programs ever.

The announcement that the 1976-77 season would be the last of the series was surprising to say the least. As one of the top-rated shows of the era, the program was a virtual mint. Not only was it extremely profitable, but the writing had never been better. To many, the seventh season was the best one of the entire run.

Watching these programs over 30 years after they originally aired reaffirms its reputation as one of the all-time greats. Apart from the styles, and some of the topical references, the shows have aged remarkably well. There are laugh-out-loud moments in every episode, and the jokes never pander. As is apparent to even the most casual viewer, the main characters were some of meticulously well-crafted ever.

The WJM newsroom is a complex web of personalities. The leads are smart, vulnerable, and complicated - quite unlike those of most of the competition. Proving that some things never change, characters like these are as uncommon on today’s sitcoms as they were back then.

Some interesting people stopped by to say hello that season. The biggest was late-night king Johnny Carson. Presumably he was attired in his trademark seventies leisure suit, but we will never know for sure. As a guest at one of Mary’s legendarily bad parties, Carson walks in just as the lights in her building go out. He says hello to everyone, then beats a hasty retreat.

I was surprised to see a very young Helen Hunt as Murray’s daughter in one of the episodes. And John Amos came back as Gordy, who covered sports during the first season. He is now a high-profile network personality, and has to put up with Ted's merciless begging for a job as his co-host. Ted even offers his wife Georgette to Gordy in exchange for the gig.

This was the season that Mary and Lou finally went out on a date. Talk about an impeccably written script, this one is near perfect. To be able to show the mutual attraction, their roles as colleagues, explore the idea of a romantic relationship, and resolving it all by staying “just friends” in one 22-minute program is an extraordinary display of talent.

Much has been made of “The Last Show” in the 33 years since it was first broadcast. It had such an impact that it became the de facto template for the occasion of a series' end. When that time came for Seinfeld, they decided to flip the MTM format, and have regretted it ever since.

With the release of the seventh season, every episode is now finally available on DVD. For this writer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is as good as television has ever gotten, it is a series I unequivocably recommend.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Mary Tyler Moore Show - The Complete Seventh Season on Blogcritics.

Book Review: American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Second Edition) by Steven Blush

The 2001 publication of American Hardcore: A Tribal History was a welcome event for aged former punks like myself. Prior to its appearance, the prospect of an in-depth analysis of the hardcore (HC) punk world seemed remote at best. HC was a culture that existed well below the radar of most of Americans. If the average Joe knew anything about the scene at all, it was likely the “punk rock riot” stories the press breathlessly reported.

The significance, and ongoing influence of HC on the culture at large, had never been articulated as well as it was in American Hardcore. Author Steven Blush’s experiences as a HC promoter in Washington D.C. (or HarDCore) proved invaluable to the writing. Not only did Blush witness key events first-hand, he met practically everyone who was involved in the scene. American Hardcore was recognized as the definitive word on HC, and it seemed likely to hold that position for some time to come.

With the just-published second edition of American Hardcore, Blush has delivered a book that is superior to the first in nearly every way. All of the chapters have been updated, and a new one titled “Destroy Babylon” has been added. Blush conducted over twenty-five fresh interviews, has included loads of previously unseen artwork, drafted two hundred band bios, and dramatically increased the discography section. The bottom line? The original 328 pages have grown to 408, and most of the text has been substantially rewritten.

For those who like to argue, Blush offers plenty of opportunities. Not in the facts department; the man clearly knows his stuff when it comes to basics like band names, members, and gigs. But when it comes time for a critical appraisal of the music, he loses it. Like assholes, everybody has an opinion. A great many of Blush’s seem to come straight out of the Politically Correct Punk Rock Bible. I would wager that every reader will find something they disagree with in here. What’s more, I have a sneaking suspicion that is exactly what the author’s intentions were.

Still, I had to wonder sometimes if Blush liked any of the bands at all. For starters, everyone who “went metal” in the mid-eighties are dismissed as sellouts, and will forever suck. Groups who signed with major labels, like Husker Du and The Replacements, are obviously worthless. And in regards to the few remaining bands who pass muster, most were never worth a damn in the first place it seems.

This crotchety old punk rocker is like that geezer Andy Rooney with a Mohawk. With the glory days of HC becoming an ever distant memory, maybe 60 Minutes will do a feature. If so, the second edition of American Hardcore is the only reference they would need. It is the definitive word on HC, and should remain so for quite a while. Or at least until Blush decides to do another update.

Article first published as Book Review: American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Second Edition) by Steven Blush on Blogcritics